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Some senators on Monday took the opportunity to express their dismay that the Department of Health and Human Services has held up a set of state psychology licensing rules and regulations for at least seven years.

They spoke out during a report offered to the Legislature on the confirmation of Dr. Thomas Williams, the chief medical officer and director of the department's public health division.

Williams, a pathologist, in part oversees the division responsible for regulation and licensure of health professionals and occupations. He has practiced at Methodist Hospital in Omaha for 38 years, and teaches at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said the lack of revised regulations for the practice of psychology in the state has hurt recruitment of psychologists and has impacted the public. 

In 2008, he said, the Board of Psychology completed a review of the regulations after consulting with the Nebraska Psychological Association, and recommended several important changes. Those revisions ranged from psychological definitions on testing, extended timeframes for completing doctoral supervised work experience, record keeping and updating of the code of conduct.

Those revised regulations were sent in 2009 to the Nebraska Catholic Conference for review, Morfeld said, and the conference "demanded" the regulations be revised to include a conscience clause that would allow licensed psychologists to deny professional services.

If a person from the LGBT community would go to a psychologist who did not approve of that lifestyle, Morfeld said, they could be turned away with no duty to refer that person to another psychologist.

"Now why is this a big deal?" Morfeld said. "It's a big deal because the primary purpose of the regulations is not to serve the individual personal interest of a psychologist, but rather the broader public interest and good."

The department's CEO, Courtney Phillips, said long-running actions on the rules have been terminated and a new draft of the regulations has been written.  

"We put (out) a fresh set that people can start to provide feedback (on), and we'll work through the process," she said. 

The Nebraska Catholic Conference said the conference's position on the regulations was misrepresented during the debate.

The conference, said executive director Tom Venzor, had for many years been willing to work on alternative means for referral of patients that satisfied everyone. But other stakeholders were unwilling to accept the compromise, he said.

The conscience clause and referral proposal had to do with marriage counseling, he said, and not psychological counseling for people who were depressed, for example, or had other needs.

The conference's compromise would have permitted a mandatory, general list of providers for referral, but not a direct referral to a specific provider, Venzor said.  

"This general list would have provided the patient ample avenues for choosing the provider best suited for their needs," he said. 

Venzor said counselors, including those at Catholic Social Services, provide services to anybody dealing with the array of mental health issues, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

"For example," he said, "a counselor would not deny somebody suffering depression or anxiety because of their sexual orientation or gender identity."

But those counselors have limits on their ability to properly and fully serve a patient regarding marriage therapy because of their religious and moral beliefs on the nature of marriage as being between one man and one woman, he said. 

A letter sent March 6 to Phillips from Anne Talbot, president of the board of directors of the Nebraska Psychological Association, protested the new draft of regulations.

That draft, she said, removes sanctions for discrimination, including the elimination of any mention of sexual orientation and gender identity as non-discrimination categories. And there is no reference to the American Psychological Association's practice standards cited in previous versions of the regulations. 

"This is especially disappointing in light of our previous hope that your administration would take a more enlightened stance toward our long delayed and much needed psychology regulations updates," Talbot said. 

Omaha Sen. John McCollister said he hoped Phillips would put the issue on the top of her to-do list. The regulations process should not go back to square one, he said. 

The Legislature confirmed Williams' appointment 39-2, with Omaha Sens. Ernie Chambers and Morfeld voting against the appointment.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist said Williams' credentials spoke volumes about his past, but now his job is to take care of the health and safety issues of Nebraska that have not been taken care of for quite some time, including such issues as immunizations and radon in homes.

And when the doctor comes to committees to testify on health and safety issues, Krist said, he needs to provide his medical opinion and tell the truth about those issues. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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